Wednesday 18 September 2019

Paris Terror Attacks: Father tells how he went back inside the hell of the Bataclan to find his son

As gunmen carried out their massacre of music fans John Leader went back into the Bataclan concert hall to find his 12-year-old son Oscar

John Leader and Oscar
John Leader and Oscar
John Leader and son Oscar Photo: ABC News
A lady wrapped in a foil blanket is evacuated from the Bataclan
An armed policeman stands guard in the street where Le Bataclan music venue is situated
People hug on the street near the Bataclan concert hall following the attacks in Paris
People lay flowers and candles as they gather at the memorial near the Bataclan

Rory Mulholland, in Paris and Patrick Sawer

It is a sound to send a deathly chill through the heart of any parent.

A man’s voice can be heard on film frantically shouting “Oscar”, “Oscar” as he runs through a darkened Parisian street searching for his son.

John Leader and son Oscar Photo: ABC News
John Leader and son Oscar Photo: ABC News

John Leader and his 12-year-old boy had, moments earlier, fled in terror from the Bataclan concert hall, where Islamic State killers Omar Ismail Mostefai, Samy Amimour and an unnamed accomplice had launched a murderous attack, killing dozens of music fans.

But once outside Mr Leader suddenly realised the two had become separated and Oscar was no longer with him.

Panic-stricken the Australian-born company executive did what any father or mother fervently hope they would. He rushed back inside the hell of the Bataclan with one thought on his mind – to find his son.

One week on from the terrorist attacks in Paris that almost claimed his and his son’s life, Mr Leader cannot bear to be separated from Oscar.

A lady wrapped in a foil blanket is evacuated from the Bataclan
A lady wrapped in a foil blanket is evacuated from the Bataclan
An armed policeman stands guard in the street where Le Bataclan music venue is situated
People hug on the street near the Bataclan concert hall following the attacks in Paris

And only now is the reality of what the two of them went through, along with hundreds of Parisians targeted by Islamist terrorists, beginning to sink in.

In a compellingly detailed account, Mr Leader, 46, has told of what he and Oscar endured on a night that began as a precious opportunity to bond over their shared love of rock music and the band Eagles of Death Metal - who have spoken for the first time about the massacre.

“We’re both fans of the group. Oscar is in a rock band and was at a rehearsal so I picked him up from there and we headed to the Bataclan,” said Mr Leader, who has lived in Paris, where he is a director of an environmental company, for the past 15 years.

The pair arrived late and once past the two bouncers outside the much-loved music venue stood for a moment at the back of the hall, before moving towards the mixing desk to get a closer view of the US band.

People lay flowers and candles as they gather at the memorial near the Bataclan
People lay flowers and candles as they gather at the memorial near the Bataclan

On reflection Mr Leader says it would have been remarkably easy for the gunmen to enter the building. “When we got there, there were just two bouncers outside and no barrier, so it would have been easy for the attackers to get in,” he said.

It was then, at 9.49pm, that the terror began.

“Everybody was having a good time,” said Mr Leader. “Suddenly I heard bang, bang, bang. Nobody clicked what it was. We were at a rock concert and you don’t expect anything like what happened. I thought maybe it was firecrackers.

“Then I felt something hit my head. It wasn’t a bullet but a particle or something and it hit my head at great speed. Everyone threw themselves to the ground. People were falling on top of each other.”

Instinctively Mr Leader pushed Oscar to the other side of the mixing desk, where a crush of people three to four deep were hiding , in fear for their lives.

“The lights suddenly went on,” he said. “It had been dark, but now there were full house lights. Everybody went quiet.”

What followed was beyond imagination in its sheer inhumanity.

“It was clinical. All you heard was bang, bang, bang,” said Mr Leader. “The shooter was standing at the back of the hall and targeting people at the front. He was taking aim. He was not spraying. It was clinical. He was aiming: aim, fire, aim, fire, aim, fire.

“Everyone was thinking: if I move I’m dead.”

Meanwhile Oscar was trying to crawl under the mixing desk, but when he got under there he saw the mixing engineer waving at him to go back, because the attackers had a full view of where he would have emerged on the other side.

Mr Leader said: “Oscar tried to get up but I told him: ‘Stay down, these guys are killers.’ They were now changing magazines. I heard one say something about Syria.

“I popped my head up and looked at them. One was doing crowd control. He was standing there with his gun at the ready, but not shooting, just watching the crowd. The other one was reloading and then he started shooting again.

The Australian said it would have been impossible for anyone in the crowd to overpower the gunmen and that all that anyone could do was wait for a long-enough pause in the killing for them to make a run for it. Eventually it came.

“I reckon he did three or four reloads and I thought maybe they will just run out of ammunition,” he said. “Then there was a lull. This was after what seemed to me like 10 or 15 minutes. Someone shouted ‘Ils sont partis’ (They are gone).

“To my right I saw people running and saw that someone had opened an exit door. I grabbed Oscar and said “Let’s go!” Then we saw a lake of blood and bodies lying everywhere.”

Oscar and his father threw themselves to the ground as the shooting started again, but during another lull Mr Leader managed to push his son towards the stairs that led to the exit.

It was then that he lost sight of him. “I ended up being about five seconds behind him getting out, and when I did get outside he was gone,” he said. “I saw a crowd of people about 50 metres away, running. I thought he was with them. I screamed “Oscar” and was expecting to see him turn around. But no.”

Mr Leader’s frantic shouts can be heard on footage recorded by a journalist from Le Monde viewed by millions around the world, showing a young, pregnant woman, hanging from an upper floor window in her desperation to escape.

Displaying incredible bravery Mr Leader ran back to the exit to the Bataclan and back up the stairs. The sight that greeted him resembled a charnel house.

“By now there were bodies on the stairs, I think maybe of people who had been shot and had dragged themselves towards the exit,” he said. “I couldn’t see Oscar. I was shouting his name and thinking to myself ‘He can’t be far. He must answer me, shout ‘Dad’ anything – but that didn’t happen.”

As shooting broke out again Mr Leander went back outside and, increasingly frantic, scoured the road and, turning right, he asked a policeman if he had seen his son.

“He said no and that I should get out of the area immediately,” he said.

In desperation Mr Leader called Oscar’s mobile. To his immense relief his son answered and said he was “OK” and safe nearby.

“I ran to meet him. He’d lost his wallet and his shoes during our escape from the Bataclan.”

Inside the hall 89 people lay dead. Others desperately wounded, playing dead or crying out in agony, as police stormed the building, shot one gunmen on the ground floor and cornered and shot the other two upstairs, as they threatened to behead a group of hostages.

Oscar and his father made their way to the neighbourhood’s town hall, where the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, was comforting survivors. Counsellors and psychologists were quickly on hand to help begin the process for the victims of coping with the trauma of what they had just experienced.

“We’re OK,” said Mr Leader during the days that followed. “We’re maybe in the stage where the emotions haven’t yet bubbled up.”

What remains with Mr Leader is the calculating manner of the killers. And their youth.

“I only saw two shooters in the Bataclan. I’ve heard there were four,” he said. “Maybe the others were upstairs. They were wearing these very voluminous, tan vests. I thought they had stashed magazines in the vests but now it looks like they were suicide vests.”

Pausing, he added: “The ones I saw were young, dressed casually. They were taking their time, they were calm.”

On Friday - seven days after the horror of the Bataclan - Mr Leader told The Telegraph: “We are doing well a week later. I have had great support as well from friends and family around the world and am now back at work. We are both having counselling about coping with such an incident.”

Oscar, who is now back at school and enjoying the support of his friends and teachers, will take part in a rugby match as normal this weekend.

With a boy’s typical understatement he recalled how he had lain alongside a dead body during the attack. “It was my first time,” he said. “I was lying just next to one. I was really not at all in a comfortable position at that moment.”

Asked if he had felt frightened Oscar pauses and nods and says hesitatingly: “Yeah”. And as he does so his eyes drift into the middle distance and begin to well up.

A 55-second clip from the interview has been released ahead of the interview's full release in which he said just one person in the room survived - by hiding under the vocalist's leather jacket.

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